Judging by the quality of his recent golf, age is just a number to veteran Georgia PGA member James Mason, with that number now representing a target on his best days on the course.
The 66-year-old Mason bettered his age for the second time in a month in tournament play in the opening round of the Yamaha Georgia Senior Open at Chattahoochee GC, and held off former champion Sonny Skinner the next day to win the event for the second time in three years,
Mason followed up his 65 at Chattahoochee with a 69 in the second round Tuesday for a 10-under 134 total, the lowest score in the tournament since at least 1997, and possibly in the history of the event, which dates back to 1983.
It was Mason’s third win in the Georgia Senior Open, with his first coming in his initial appearance in the tournament in 2001, the first year he was eligible. He did not appear in the tournament again until 2013, by which time his career on the Champions Tour was winding down.
Mason was a regular on the Champions Tour for almost a decade after scoring a surprise win as a pre-tournament qualifier in 2002 in the long since defunct NFL Classic in New Jersey. That was the last time the event was played, denying Mason his only opportunity to play on the tour as a defending champion.
As his status on the tour diminished, Mason has played in a limited number of tournaments since 2011, making just 10 total starts since 2013. For just the second time since 2002, Mason did not qualify for this year’s PGA Senior Championship, and is intent on making a 15th career start in the senior major next year.
Mason earned just over $3 million during his Champions Tour career after making just a dozen starts on the PGA Tour, mostly in events in the state he got into through Georgia PGA qualifying. His lone appearance in the PGA Championship came at the age of 47 in 1998, when Mason was in the midst of a very successful run in the Georgia PGA in his late 40s.
From 1997-2000, Mason won eight Georgia PGA tournaments including the Section Championship three times and the Atlanta Open in 2000 at the age of 49. He was the Georgia PGA Player of the Year in 1997, ’98 and 2000 and won both the state’s major senior events in his first year of eligibility in 2001 before playing his way onto the Champions Tour the next year.
He has returned to competing in Georgia PGA events in recent years, winning his fourth Section Championship at Sea Island GC in 2015 and contending in a number of other Section events against much younger competitors.
When asked to explain how he has managed to maintain his game at such a high level into his mid-60s, Mason replied, “I have no earthly idea.
“I stretch a lot and I’ve stayed flexible enough. I hit balls almost every day and I still drive it good. I drove it perfect for two days.”
By the time Mason began his first round early Monday afternoon, Skinner was wrapping up a 66 that gave him the early lead. It didn’t take Mason long to challenge Skinner’s lead, as he birdied holes 10 and 11, his first two of the round, and eagled the par-5 13th to go 4-under after four holes.
Consecutive birdies at holes 15, 16 and 17 gave Mason a 29 on his first nine, and when he birdied the first hole to go 8-under after 10, he admitted he was “thinking of other numbers than one below my age. Then I got ahead of myself and threw up all over myself.”
Mason bogeyed two of his last six holes, including the par-5 eighth, and settled for a 65 to lead Skinner and Tim Conley, like Mason and Skinner a former tour pro, by one shot. Skinner had five birdies in a six-hole stretch on the back nine and Conley birdied five of his last 11 holes and did not have a bogey on his scorecard.
The three were paired together in the second round, and with none of the other six players who shot in the 60s the first day able to shoot lower than 71 in the second round, the tournament came down to the final group.
Conley, who plays out of the Legends at Chateau Elan, made several birdie putts of length but struggled to hole shorter efforts and fell out of contention with five bogeys on his first 10 holes. He played his last eight holes in 2-under without another bogey for a 73 to tie for third at 139 with Mike Combs of Roswell, who shot the low round the second day (68) to take low amateur honors.
That left the final round a two-man duel between Mason and Skinner, who won the Georgia Senior Open in 2012 and captured the Yamaha Atlanta Open title in both 2015 and ’16.
Skinner briefly took the lead when he birdied the opening hole and Mason bogeyed after hitting his second shot over the green on the par 4 and missing a short par putt. But Mason quickly moved into a tie for the lead when he birdied the second and Skinner missed a shorter birdie try.
Mason holed another nice birdie putt on the fourth to regain the outright lead, and went two ahead when he birdied the par-5 eighth with a delicate downhill chip after going just long in two.
Skinner cut his deficit to one with a birdie at the par-4 ninth after sticking his approach shot, with Mason having to scramble for par when his tee shot went through the fairway and came to rest behind a tree, forcing him to leave his second shot well short of the green.
Mason and Skinner matched scores for the first seven holes of the back nine, with both making birdie on the par-5 13th. Mason got up-and-down from a greenside bunker, with Skinner getting down in two from the back fringe after his long eagle attempt came up well short.
Both players settled for par at the par-5 15th after getting close to the green in two, and Skinner’s hopes were dashed after his tee shot on the downhill par-3 17th went over the flag into the back fringe and he left himself a difficult par attempt, which he missed. Skinner shot 70 on the day to take outright second at 136. Skinner is currently working as a sales rep for several companies and plans to teach part time at Spring Hill in Tifton and Pine Hills in Cordele.
Mason, who lives in Dillard and teaches and plays out of the Orchard, bettered his age in competition earlier in April in the Georgia PGA Senior Division tournament at Willow Lake in Metter, shooting 65-68 to win by three.
Although he plays most of his tournament golf in Georgia, Mason still makes the occasional attempt to Monday qualify on the Champions Tour, but has not had much success in recent years. He hasn’t given up yet, and says “if I can putt like I did today, I’ve got a chance.”
Mason is very appreciative of the opportunity to compete on the Champions for more than a decade, and says, “I still have to pinch myself. It’s been great.”
The last big moment for Mason on the Champions Tour came at the age of 60 in 2011. He shot 65 in the final round for a 54-hole total of 198 but lost in a playoff in an event in North Carolina. He tied for second in the PGA’s senior club professional championship in 2014, and won his second Georgia Senior Open title in 2015 when he finished eagle-birdie at the UGA course in Athens to get into a playoff, which he won with another birdie on the difficult 18th.
When it was announced on the first tee of the final round of the 2017 Georgia Senior Open that Mason won the tournament in 2001 and 2015, those within earshot did some mental math and marveled at the 14 years between the two victories.
Now there is 16 years between Mason’s first and third wins in the tournament, and that number could increase.
Two of the players who finished behind Mason will get to do something he will miss out on next month. Craig Stevens, who shot 69-71—140 at Chattahoochee to tie for fifth, and Stephen Keppler, who closed with a 69 to tie for ninth at 143, will both compete in the PGA Senior Championship after qualifying in last year’s senior club professional championship. The tournament will be played in late May at a Donald Trump course outside Washington, D.C.
Stevens, ordinarily one of Georgia’s steadiest senior club pros, had an uncharacteristically wild final round. He was 6-under on the par 5s with two eagles and two birdies an added two more birdies, but also made seven bogeys for a seemingly ordinary score of 71. Keppler finished eagle-birdie to move into the top 10.
Statesboro’s John L. Smith, who lost in a playoff last year at Chattahoochee in the Georgia Senior Open, tied Stevens for fifth at 140. Also tying for fifth and taking second among the amateurs was John Foster. Rusty Strawn was third among the amateurs and eighth overall at 142
Tying for ninth Keppler at 142 were amateurs Chris Hall and Bob Royak and club pros Phil Taylor, Paul Gooden and Rodger Hogan, the head pro at Chattahoochee.